Forget mad slashers and serial killers: this is a real horror story. And it’s all the more horrifying because it takes place in Europe (specifically, in Belgium), where protection for workers and the social safety net is so much stronger than it is in the U.S. Of course, this is a fictional story, but it is sweaty with a palpable ring of truth about the economic precariousness of everyone who isn’t rich, and the unending fear that accompanies life on the knife edge of financial despair.
Crammed into one weekend here — the two days and one night of the title — is a desperate quest by Sandra (Marion Cotillard: Blood Ties, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) to save the job that her family relies on to get by. Her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), works too, but he doesn’t earn enough alone to pay their mortgage and support their two kids. And clearly Sandra’s job isn’t high-powered, though it’s probably not minimum wage, either: she works in a small factory that, it appears, make solar panels, on, perhaps, a sort of bespoke assembly line. The precise nature of the work isn’t clear, except that it’s blue-collar. What is clear is that her coworkers have just thrown her under a bus. Their boss told the small team that they can get their work done without Sandra, and he gave them the option of either keeping her on while everyone forgoes a €1,000 bonus, or the rest of them can take the bonus and give Sandra the boot.
The majority vote was to give Sandra the boot, which she learns on a Friday. (I’m not spoiling anything: we get all the essential stuff here in the first few minutes of the film.) But the boss did agree to have another vote on the coming Monday, leaving her the weekend to run around town and confront her coworkers and ask them to give up their bonuses so that she can keep the job that she desperately needs. Of course, everyone else is in pretty much the same boat as Sandra, so they could all really use an extra €1,000. Who couldn’t?
And that is the nightmare of this story, from the acclaimed brother filmmaker team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: it pits honest, hardworking people who are just scraping by against one another… like so many economies have been doing very obviously since the 2008 crisis, although it’s been happening in the U.S. and the U.K. since the early 80s and the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. But who has time for a revolution when the mortgage is coming due again and the kid needs braces (or whatever)? Sandra must appeal to the compassion of her friends and colleagues who have been placed in an unfair position, because there’s no other room for compassion or basic human decency in a capitalistic system; it cuts into profit, doncha know. And there’s not a lot of room for it here, either.
Oh, and another thing: The boss learned that his team could do without Sandra because she’s been on medical leave — and was just about to return — as she has been recovering from clinical depression. This new situation at work isn’t so good for her recovery, naturally… but with this aspect of the story, the Dardennes are surely suggesting that depression is a fairly reasonable response to the pressures we are all put under. (Sandra could have been recuperating from a broken leg, or appendicitis. But she isn’t.)
I call this film a horror story, but it is powerfully humane and bitterly angry. Not at Sandra, or at any of her coworkers, but at the system that is chewing them all up. As a film, this is often sometimes difficult and painful to watch, as our affinity for Sandra — Cotillard is so very sympathetic — and the embarrassment of her predicament clashes with the very real desperation of the people she is asking for help from. Her pleas are met with many different sorts of responses — from one of her coworkers (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) comes something very unexpected and very moving — and it’s hard to fault those who decline to help her for doing so.
In this sort of situation, what is selfish? If €1,000 isn’t enough to sell out a friend, what would be enough? It’s all too easy for us to see ourselves in a similar situation, and wonder how we’d react if Sandra came to us. And it’s tough to see how anything will ever change for the better in an economy in which human beings are disposable commodities.